For dirt-eating endurophiles, awaiting BMW's new F800GS has been like waiting for Christmas. Only better: Germany rarely delivers a lump of coal. And after flying 10,000 miles from California to South Africa to test ride the bike, we could only hope it would be better than a banana-seated Schwinn. Fortunately, this new GS is a true gift: a mid-sized adventure-sport with the balls of an off-road enduro and the amenities of a world-class explorer.
The adventure starts with the bike's aggressive styling. The look is all business, and unlike many of the steely-eyed standards running around today, the 800's performance backs up its bring-it-on look. It felt awesome carving a twisty highway and sucked up the African potholes like peanuts at the bar. The bike's taut inverted fork provides the 21-inch, wire-spoke front wheel with an impressive 9 inches of travel, delivering more insistent, precise surface feedback than the plusher-feeling R1200GS's Telelever with its 7.5 inches. The 800's double-sided swingarm, with a hand wheel for adjusting spring preload, provides 8.5 inches of travel.
Team the long-travel suspension with a wide, neutral bar and sublime lock-to-lock turning radius and you know this bike is ready for the trail. We did about 60 miles off-road, most of it on twisting, tattered fire roads-which in Africa are not for fires but for walking or herding animals. Packs of flashy BMW motorcycles throttling about caused quite a stir, raising hundreds of school children, goats and even a few zebras. Luckily, our bikes were equipped with the optional Garmin GPS unit, pre-programmed with our circuitous route. Without it, some of us would still be riding circles in the green, sugar cane-laden hills surrounding Durban.
Having done tens of thousands of miles piloting 1200GSs on various continents, I have distinct memories of how cumbersome that bike can feel off-road. The 800 never felt huge, despite its still-substantial claimed dry weight of 409 pounds (roughly 100 lbs. lighter than the 1200). The new bike is quick, light in feel and nimble. It easily handled rocky hairpins, ruts, sand and mud. The Brembo brakes proved more than able, and the optional ABS is easily disengaged for dirt riding.
The '08 GS line includes two new twin-cylinder models: the $10,520 F800 in the foreground
Admittedly, the lion's share of time we spent off-road was on pretty tame trails, but for a serious long-haul traveler wearing street tires, the bike kicked ass in the dirt. And it has plenty of street clout, too. The high-revving, 800cc parallel-twin we've become familiar with in the company's middleweight sport machines offers a snappy 85 horsepower that comes on strong in the midrange, with a good spread of torque. The six-speed transmission is the same found in the S model, though the output shaft was modified to accept the bike's more dirt-appropriate chain (rather than belt) drive.
A conversation with BMW Motorrad Chief Designer David Robb made the aesthetic nature of his latest creation all the more impressive. Robb's philosophy has always been that, "Design must follow technology, never style." But he is so brilliant at making functionality attractive that it's easy to forget the sexy curved tail section holds the fuel cell and the snout-like intake ducts are up by the faux fuel tank so you can ford the Yangtze.
Are they white with black stripes or black with white stripes? Only their moms know for su
Robb says he doesn't have a single favorite element on the F800GS. He doesn't look at any parts separately. Instead, all the elements of a motorcycle need to work together to create a feel, a character and sense of intention. We all know the original single-cylinder F650GS's character was about friendliness and approachability. And the big GS boxer line exudes vigor, sophistication and worldliness. If so, this new generation of middleweight, with its gazelle legs and badger heart, is all dreams and grit and drama.